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Ed Ross | Monday, January 16, 2012

In every American war there have been those few that will urinate on enemy corpses or degrade and abuse enemy detainees. War is hell, and it can bring out the worst in people. But do those who behave badly do so because of the stresses of combat or because of a propensity for such behavior before they entered the military? As a Vietnam War combat veteran, I can testify that both are true; but instances of the latter, in my opinion, outnumber the former as American men and women in uniform bring with them their personal moral and ethical bearings.

There is a fine line between what constitutes acceptable behavior in combat and what violates the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the laws of war; and that line has evolved over the years. Many incidents considered acceptable during World War II, when German and Japanese warriors were portrayed in U.S. government and Hollywood propaganda films as sub-human, would be considered war crimes today. As any combat veteran of World War II will tell you, captured German and Japanese soldiers on the battlefield, dead or alive, weren't always treated well.

In Vietnam U.S. warriors were routinely and unfairly portrayed as baby killers; and various atrocities such as the Mai Lai Massacre are well documented, although they were far less common than Hollywood and the media would lead you to believe. Burning Vietcong villages was part of General William Westmorlandís search-and-destroy strategy. The strategy was fatally flawed, but not the overwhelming majority of troops that executed it.

The mores of war have evolved as modern society has evolved; and in the modern world of digital photography, cell-phone video, and the Internet, when images of offenses such as degrading detainees at Abu Ghraib or the desecration of corpses by marines are seen by millions of people, they have an enormous impact, especially in todayís geopolitical environment. The paradox is that the bar has risen for what's acceptable behavior on the battlefield while the bar of personal morality in American society has been lowered.

Psychiatrists have studied the psychology of war extensively; and there is a voluminous body of literature on the subject. U.S. government and military leaders do their best to use that body of knowledge to minimize unacceptable behavior; but no matter what they do they canít completely prevent it. So itís important for Americans in general to understand why it happens and to put it in perspective.

The most common psychological phenomenon that affects combat veterans mental stability, and now the most well-known, is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Greatly under diagnosed among Vietnam War combat veterans, it has been studied extensively since Vietnam, which accounts for the increased diagnosis of PTSD among Iraq and Afghanistan combat veterans.

PTSD, however, is not the underlying reason that guards at Abu Ghraib degraded detainees or the four marines urinated on Taliban corpses. Rather it plays itself out over the long term, impairing an individualís ability to function and affecting social, occupational, and family relationships. Suicide, alcohol and drug abuse years after combat are more common reactions. A good friend of mine, suffering from PTSD, committed suicide several years after he was the sole survivor of an ambush in Vietnam in which all the members of his patrol were killed.

Reactions to combat stress vary widely; and harrowing combat experiences can temporarily affect a warriorís state of mind. My unit, the 9th Infantry Division, deployed to Vietnam in December 1966 with little advanced unit training after having been reactivated only six months before. Our first three months in combat were marked by numerous encounters with the Vietcong in which we suffered high casualty rates with little or no effect on the enemy.

When one battalion that had been among the hardest hit finally won an intense battle, inflicting heavy losses on the VC, a few soldiers in one company cut ears of corpses and carved 9s on their bodies. The two other companies in the same battalion, however, didn't engage in similar behavior. You can attribute that to different leadership; but I attribute it to differences in individual personalities.

Abusing enemy corpses or detainees is wrong; and military authorities must hold those that do so personally accountable and discipline them appropriately; but we must look beyond what happens to men and women in combat to understand why a few do what they do and seek ways to minimize abuse. Iíve known far too many warriors who survived horrendous experiences in combat that went on to lead normal and productive lives and who never committed or condoned abusive behavior by others. Just consider the long line of Medal of Honor recipients and other highly decorated combat veterans who conducted themselves in the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The men and women that serve in the U.S. military, however, are a reflection of the society from which they come; and the moral fabric of American society has been under assault for decades. Given the moral relativism many recruits bring with them, itís a wonder that the incidents of unacceptable behavior by members of the U.S. Armed Forces arenít higher than they are.

Nevertheless, despite the few highly publicized events, those committed by U.S. military personnel are extremely rare when you consider the millions of men and women that serve.

Incidents such as Abu Ghraib, desecrating Taliban corpses, or killing innocent civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan should disturb and sadden all Americans. If you are looking for answers on how to prevent them, however, look not just to the U.S. Armed Forces, look to our families, schools and churches and ask yourself, are they preparing todayís children for the moral and ethical choices of tomorrow?


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Panetta: Apparent Marine Desecration of Taliban Corpses is 'Utterly Deplorable"

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The Mai Lai Massacre

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Psychological Effects of Combat

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